A Motion Picture Before the Time of Film
The stories within “Spring Morning in the Han Palace”
Jun 13, 2019Featured artists
What is a film but a series of images? Although films wouldn’t appear until the late 19th century, they were approximated nearly 2500 years before in the form of Chinese handscrolls. Like movies, handscrolls often tell a story. Like books, it’s ultimately up to the reader to advance the story (though handscroll artists tend to use various techniques to prolong the reader’s stay in one section or speed them through another).
Though Qiu was born to peasants (around 1494), he would go on to paint one of the most famous depictions of aristocratic life from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Talent and imagination, it turns out, trump class. Qui was best known for two distinct techniques: 仕女画 (belle painting, or the depiction of beauty in nature and people, mostly women) and 界画 (ruler-lined painting, which was used to paint architecture and buildings). By combining these, he was able to produce a work with as much emotional depth and technical proficiency as his masterpiece.
Setting the scene
Spring Morning should be considered a period piece. It was first released in 1552, but it told a story from many years ago. Funny enough, like the period dramas of today, where a modern accent or article of clothing slips in, Qiu didn’t completely shed the signifiers of his own life. Certain wardrobes and objects within the scroll aren’t from the Han dynasty, but the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Qiu’s time.
The story features about 115 characters, including painters, children, maids, eunuchs, and, most importantly, court ladies. Beauty and grace are the point of the scroll and are shown in their most perfect states through the various women inhabiting the palace; the careful, pristine architecture they inhabit; or the idyllic flora scattered throughout.
If the story here isn’t as bubbling as a Michael Bay action flick, with enough attention, we can at least pull out some plotlines—and one striking story.
Nearly all the characters have one-note subplots. They sweep the yard, play instruments and games like Go, read books, dance, water flowers, admire paintings, and more. That is, they engage in leisure in all its most magnificent, aristocratic forms. This helps explain the popularity of Spring Morning; it offered a means of escape.
At the heart of the scroll, however, we have a story of great interest. Because the tale of Mao Yanshou and Wang Zhaojun would be known to any reader of the scroll, Spring Morning only has to reference a scene of it. But for the rest of us, it goes something like this: Emperor Yuan of Han ruled from the age of 27 until his death, at 42. His legacy is mixed. On one hand, he promoted Confucianism, which had a monumental effect on the nation’s history. On the other, he was known for his indecision, which helped give rise to infighting, and the slow decay of his administration. This hesitation was in full flourish when choosing his concubines. In fact, he had so many to choose from that he ordered his court painter, Mao, to paint their portraits so he could more accurately judge them against each other. But portrait painting is an imperfect way to reproduce likeness, as the painter has a say. All the concubines, eager to be chosen, bribed Mao—except for one, Wang, who happened to be the most beautiful. But Emperor Yuan dismissed Wang, who, judging only from the portraits, wasn’t up to his standards. Later, when a barbarian chieftain arrived at the palace, looking for a concubine of his own, Emperor Yuan gave him Wang. Only then did he realize his mistake and had his artist executed.
It’s difficult to glean any moral from the story, except for the obvious ones: Don’t bribe; be righteous. But here’s where handscrolls depart from the narrative media of today—to look for meaning is perhaps missing the point. The story of Mao and Wang may be the most attention-grabbing part of the story, but it isn’t the value it provided the reader. It was a means of escape, a time-travel device, and a beautiful display of talent and technique. It is for these reasons that it’s still with us five centuries later. And what summer blockbuster can boast that kind of shelf life?
Read all 13 sections of the scroll in order here.